Arie Altena

Sonic Acts and the Changing Role of Festivals

Arie Altena and Lucas van der Velden, with Victoria Douka-Doukopoulou

This text was published in A Critical History of Media Art in the Netherlands, edited by Sanneke Huisman and Marga van Mechelen, and published by Jap Sam Books in 2019.

Experiment and Development

On 18 and 19 August 1994, the first edition of the Sonic Acts Festival took place in Paradiso in Amsterdam. Following an article by Minou op den Velde in CJP magazine about experiments in the field of live electronics and new media art by students of the Sonology and Sound and Vision programme of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Paradiso showed an interest in a 'festival of sounds and images'. Pop temple Paradiso was looking for new impulses in its programming when director Pierre Ballings gave the green light for the development of a festival 'in which the experimental composers and sound artists would be confronted with the producers of new forms of popular electronic music’.1 From its first edition, the festival provided a stage for the newest developments in the field of 'image and sound' and especially for the technological and digital innovations in the interdisciplinary performing arts.

From the moment the new media and electronic arts started their rapid development in the early 90s, platforms for interdisciplinary and technological experiments in the Netherlands became necessary, and manifestations and festivals turned out to be ideal venues.

V2_, for example, organised the first edition of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF) in Rotterdam in 1994, focussing on the influence of technological innovation on our self-image, while the TripleX Festival in Amsterdam in 1993 combined attention for new technology with experimental theatre. There were also manifestations and festivals that turned their attention to the rapid developments in technology, such as the internet and the advance of the World Wide Web, and also included media art in their programming. ‘The Galactic Hacker Party’ (1989) and ‘Hacking at the End of the Universe’ (1993) laid the foundations for the establishment of the first Dutch internet providers and De Digitale Stad (The Digital City). The political and cultural impact of these developments was the subject of the Next 5 Minutes, whose first edition took place in January 1993. The first editions of Doors of Perception that were organised in 1993 and 1994 by the Netherlands Design Institute in collaboration with Mediamatic gave a first impression of the interactive online culture and the related dreams for the future.

At some festivals that had already been established in the 1980s, a shift in programming can be noted from the mid-1990s onwards. The IMPAKT Festival in Utrecht (initially IM PAKT), which was initiated in 1988 to introduce a wide audience to audio-visual art, initially presented itself as a ‘Festival of experimental and related arts’. In 1996, the new specialisation was brought to the fore through the subtitle: ‘Festival for audiovisual arts’.

At the time when the World Wide Video Festival (WWVF) was having its 12th edition in 1994, a development became apparent in which the focus was seen to shift from video art to media art and technological developments. With the subtitle ‘State of the Art’, the WWVF, in 1994, intended to be a festival for the 'avant-garde of the moving image'. From 1994, the WWVF took interest in media art, and from 1996 in CD-ROMs and developments on the internet. The technological developments in society and art, which were shaped by the emergence of the personal computer and later the WWW, were, in 1996, fundamental to those interested in media art.

The festivals and other indicators were relatively small in the beginning, but from their inception they played a new role in the Dutch art ecology as a meeting place for artists, curators and the public with an interest in new developments at the intersection of art and technology.

The Birth of Sonic Acts

In comparison with the other festivals, the emergence of Sonic Acts was rather connected with the 'tradition' of image and sound and music theatre as well as the developments of club culture, composed music, sound art and electronic music.

In 1994, after the rise of House music and at a time when computers were becoming increasingly cheaper and more portable, a first generation of musicians and image-makers stood on stage with a laptop to make live music and generate images. In artistic practice, the idea of mixing sound and image was increasingly taken seriously. Moreover, dance culture had a visual aspect and VJing attracted attention, followed by 'live cinema' as an independent genre (see the contributions of Marina Turco and Martijn van Boven). Related developments appeared in the theatre world in the textual compositions of the progressive music theatre Hollandia and their staging of work by Dick Raaijmakers. This was also the period in which the makers of House, Techno and other electronic dance music began to discover the predecessors of academic electronic music, while in the 1980s the club culture provided a new impetus to composed electronic music that had, until then, been pushed to the sidelines. Looking back from 2019, this seems rather normal, but in the mid-90s it was an eye-opener: the modern classical composer Xenakis meets the techno duo Autechre, Stockhausen meets DJ Spooky.

During the first edition of the Sonic Acts festival, demonstrations of new instruments and interfaces for making live electronic music were shown during the day, after which there was an evening programme with concerts, followed by a night programme with electronic dance music. The visual experiments with film, video and computers that were shown turned out to be representative of the further developments of the festival. In the second edition (1995), lectures and workshops that dealt with sound technology, sampling and the history of electronic music were included in the programme. In De Volkskrant, Gert van Veen wrote about the second edition: 'Stunning electronic sound structures versus uplifting dance music, composers who never stood before a large audience alongside DJs for whom this is the most natural thing in the world: Sonic Acts is three days full of contrasts and contradictions.'2

The staging of the festival received special attention. Sonic Acts wanted different art forms and disciplines to blend into one integrated programme instead of presenting each genre separately. Often, interventions in the space would provide a new context and setting for the displayed work. The standard model of a stage in front of an audience with speakers on the side, or the format of the black box for film screenings, was not readily adopted.

Over the years, the festival offered the invited artists a wide variety of audio-visual infrastructures to realise their work and present it to the public. Together with the artists, the festival set out in search of the right form of presentation for their work. In 1997, there was a large web installed in Paradiso that triggered electronic sound when it was 'played'; in 1998 there were monumental vertical projection towers; in 2003 a 12-channel surround sound system combined with a 4-channel video projection and an immense light object, and in 2008 the Acousmomium was set up in Paradiso, a ground-breaking loudspeaker orchestra, developed in 1974 by François Bayle at the GRM in Paris, on which work from, among others, Eliane Radigue was performed.

After 2000, the Sonic Acts programme became increasingly more thematic. In 2000 and 2001, with ‘The Art of Programming and Point Pixel Programming’, Sonic Acts paid attention to the broader context of the programmed, digital technological culture, and from 2003 it also added the often forgotten, maligned or hidden histories of the technological arts. This became apparent in the 2003 edition entitled ‘Sonic Light’, which centred on the theme of 'visual music' and included a one-week film programme, a three-day conference, a small exhibition and three evenings with live performances and light projections in Paradiso. The latter took place in a specially designed 'Sonic Light Box'. The central theme was ‘the fascination held by artists for the creative possibilities offered by giving musical form to light and space.’ ‘Music for the eye’ – abstract film, light projections, expanded cinema and generative computer visuals, in addition to the spatial nature of sound – remained important focal points for the Sonic Acts festivals in the following years.

To understand the present from a historical perspective, 2006's ‘The Anthology of Computer Art’ aimed its attention at the history of computer art as 'a tribute to the work of the early pioneers’.3 The starting point was a study conducted by Casey Reas amongst young (computer) artists in which the authors emphasised that the work of the early pioneers – such as the Whitneys, Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar or Frieder Nake – was virtually unknown.

In those years, Sonic Acts usually treated visitors to multi-sensory experiences with stroboscopic effects, thick fog, abstract and non-figurative computer-generated images, immersive expanded cinema, manipulations with spatial sound and electronic music and noise. Many performances and installations were aimed at immersing the visitor in an experience that played, tuned, confused, overwhelmed or broadened the senses. Sonic Acts homed in on how art can sharpen and expand the human senses, and on attempts to make the invisible or inaudible experienceable through a subtle or experimental use of technology. In the edition ‘The Cinematic Experience’ (2008), the emphasis was placed on new possibilities for generating an immersive ‘cinematic experience’, a cinematic experience outside of the classical, narrative cinema.4 In 2010, ‘The Poetics of Space’ explored the notion of spatiality in art and music.5 Anthony McCall’s classic work Light Describing a Cone (1973) was installed at Paradiso and PlayThing (2010) by the then recently deceased Maryanne Amacher was performed in the Artis Planetarium, amongst many other works.

During these years, Sonic Acts developed into a thematic festival for cross-fertilisation between art, music, science and technology. Although technological developments remained as important as ever, they were less considered 'as such' but rather situated and called into question within a social context. The conference took an increasingly important and central place in the programming, which featured internationally renowned philosophers, scientists and artists such as Raphael Bousso, Ken Jacobs, Derrick de Kerckhove, Annea Lockwood and Saskia Sassen as invited guests. The publications that were edited on occasion of the festivals also increased in size. The publication eventually became an independent platform that highlighted the chosen theme from its own perspective with visual essays and design experiments, both on paper as well as on data carriers such as DVDs and USB. The exhibition became also an integral part of the festival. The evenings were reserved for a mix of music performances and immersive installations and radical audio-visual work. Workshops and masterclasses gave the young generation insight into the working methods of artists such as Catherine Christer Hennix, Pauline Oliveros and Steina and Woody Vasulka. Yet Sonic Acts, which always remained close to the practice of young makers, aimed to contribute further to the development of emerging talent. The masterclasses and workshops were successful and appreciated by the participants, but could not be developed further within the festival format. This became the direct reason to organise, from 2016 onward, the Sonic Acts Academy whose focus lied, and lies, on artistic research, education experiments and talent development, as well as close collaboration with leading programmes such as those at Goldsmiths University of London and the University of Utrecht.

Complexity of the Digital World

In the first years of the 21st century, the festival landscape for media art, interdisciplinary art and technological art continues to flourish, with events such as STRP (from 2003) in Eindhoven, GOGBOT (from 2004) of PlanetArt in Enschede, TodaysArt (from 2005) in The Hague, and 5DaysOff and FIBER in Amsterdam (see the Introduction). The festivals differ greatly in terms of setup, approach and content. After the cross-fertilisation and interweaving of art and popular culture in the 90s, the festivals have become increasingly more specialised.

At that time, of all the media (art) festivals, STRP was perhaps the most focussed on grand technological spectacle and a celebration of the possibilities of all things digital. In 2006, for example, its motto was 'Art loves Technology'. The programming of popular electronic music played an important role at both STRP and TodaysArt. In its own communications, STRP described itself as follows: 'STRP uses the most exciting elements of technological art to give substance to an accessible multidisciplinary pop festival.’6 In terms of content, STRP follows the development of new technology more closely than other festivals, so that, for example, by 2017 its attention was primarily on working with sensors. DEAF's approach, in comparison, was a lot more critical, as was clearly evident in the 2014 edition: ‘The Progress Trap’, in which technological progress is seen as a means to an end in itself, disassociated from the cultural and social progress it was supposed to help achieve. For the growing group of media artists, these festivals primarily offered an opportunity to show their work to a large – or at least larger – audience.

The festivals are also evolving in terms of content. At DEAF, interactivity was the notion that tied different themes together, from ‘Digital Nature’ (1994) to ‘The Art of the Accident’ (1998) and ‘Machine Times’ (2000) to ‘Interact or Die!’ (2007) and ‘The Progress Trap’ (2014).7 At every festival, the impact of interactive technology on society was explored in depth through an exhibition, a conference, a thorough publication and a large number of panels, expert meetings, workshops and seminars, with evening performances and 'Evening Of' programmes that were put together by artists. The IMPAKT Festival focussed more and more explicitly on the context of the internet and, subsequently, on the algorithmisation of society and the economy (see also the Introduction). In 2011, for example, the theme is ‘The Right to Know’ in the data society, in 2014 ‘Soft Machines: Where the Optimized Human Meets Artificial Empathy’, in 2016 authenticity in the context of social media and in 2018 ‘Algorithmic Superstructures’.

Science plays an increasingly prominent role in the work of many makers, which is reflected in the themes Sonic Acts engages with. In 2012, the experience of time was the central subject of ‘Traveling Time’, while ‘The Dark Universe’ (2013) sought inspiration from cosmology and physics and took theories about dark matter and dark energy as the starting point for its programming.8

In 2015, the festival took place under the title ‘The Geologic Imagination’. The attention had shifted to ecology and the theory of the Anthropocene. The programming was bolstered by a profound interest in cultural and social transformations that are caused by technological progress.9 In 2017, the concept of ‘The Geologic Imagination’ was continued, yet in the ‘Noise of Being’ edition the perspective shifted to 'man' against the background of the Anthropocene and the rapidly changing relationship between man and machine due to big data and artificial intelligence.

A final development in the second decade of the 21st century that cannot be left unmentioned is the shift from the festival as a stage to the festival as an institution for development and production that also commissions work, provides residencies and organises workshops. IMPAKT developed a residency program, online commissions and organised events throughout the year. DEAF also started producing works, as did STRP which, aside from new productions, also started programming lectures, presentations and workshops.

From Festival to Platform

Sonic Acts, too, increasingly developed into an independent platform for research, commissioning and international cooperation. From 2010, Sonic Acts zoomed in on initiating residencies and commissioning artists to develop new work. International cooperation played a crucial role in realising the financing and distribution of the work. From 2011 to 2013, Sonic Acts put together three editions of the Kontraste Festival in Austria, together with which it realised some twenty new works, including a soundwalk by Christina Kubisch, a site-specific installation by Raviv Ganchrow, and new works for the Accousmonium of Keith Fullerton Whitman, among others. Sonic Acts also initiated the Vertical Cinema project for which it had a 35mm projector converted so as to be able to vertically project celluloid. To this end, sixteen new audio-visual works were made by makers from home and abroad such as Tina Frank, Manuel Knapp and Esther Urlus. Vertical Cinema has been shown internationally, from Rotterdam to Australia and America.

Sonic Acts was also the initiator of the international research and commissioning project Dark Ecology (2014–16). Inspired by the ideas of Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour, among others, dark ecology has been described as the close entanglement of ecology and technology in the context of climate change. The project investigated how art can shape the altered relationship between man and Earth. It led to three research trips in the border region of Norway and Russia (Kirkenes, Nikel, Murmansk) together with makers, scientists and curators, and the development and presentation of more than twenty new works, including a soundwalk by Justin Bennett at the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Murmansk, a site-specific installation by Signe Lidén, and research in the form of a visual essay by Tatjana Gorbachewskaja and Katya Larina. Dark Ecology was also an experiment, in the sense that  the dramaturgy of the festival was developed in close connection to the research that went into it(Unattached Footnote).10

What once started as an attempt to bring electronic pop music ('dance') and 'serious' electronic music closer together, has in 25 years grown into a platform that brings together, and presents to a large audience, the latest developments in music, art, technology, science, film and related domains, always driven by curiosity and a critical eye. The history of Sonic Acts reflects the development of artists' approaches to technology in recent decades. Technology fundamentally changed the world and in those 25 years, Sonic Acts put artists, performances and art in the spotlight that reflected on those changes and often anticipated them.

Whereas the starting point for Sonic Acts in the 20th century was often the exploration of new possibilities of technology in art, in the second decade of the 21st century this shifted to a social interest in real world problems, which are given form in art through experimental use of technological means. In 2019, technological arts seem to turn its attention to social issues more readily and more in-depth than in 1994. The disruptive impact of technology affects everyone. Artists feel challenged by these social and technological developments to investigate this, to shape alternative visions of the world. In 2019, it is no longer simply about challenging our understanding of audio-visual experiences, exploring human-machine interaction and experimenting with new technology. The focus has shifted much more towards research into the social repercussions of technologies and their impact on daily life.11

In 2019, the importance of providing a stage for experimentation has only increased – more than ever, there is a need for alternative perspectives, new visions and an activation of imagination.12

1.  Frans Evers, unpublished article, 2004.

2. Gert van Veen, ‘Paradiso wordt omgetoverd in audiovisueel spookhuis’, in de Volkskrant, 16 August 1995.

3. See Lucas van der Velden and Arie Altena, The Anthology of Computer Art (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts, 2006).

4. See also Boris Debacere, Arie Altena and Lucas van der Velden, The Cinematic Experience: Sonic Acts XII (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Press, 2010).

5.  See Arie Altena and Sonic Acts, The Poetics of Space (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Press, 2010).

6. See

7. For ‘Interact or Die!’, see also Arjan Mulder and Joke Brouwer, Interact or Die! (Rotterdam: V2_ Publishing, 2007).

8. See Arie Altena and Sonic Acts, The Dark Universe (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Press, 2013).

9. See Lucas van der Velden et al.,  The Geological Imagination (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Press, 2015).

10.  See Mirna Belina et al., Living Earth: Field Notes from the Dark Ecology Project 2014-2016  (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Press, 2016), and The Geological Imagination (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Press, 2016).

12. See Mirna Belina, HEREAFTER (Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Press, 2019)

13. This article is based on the digital archive of Sonic Acts and on information available on the websites of the aforementioned festivals.

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Arie Altena